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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Protected bike lanes, more housing, surface lots gone: City plan aims for an energized, denser downtown

The city has drafted a new Downtown Master Plan that aims to institute a number of concrete changes to everything from zoning to tax credits for housing to transit to protected bike lanes to new public spaces.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane’s downtown has changed drastically over the past several decades, as the once- forlorn heart of the city has been revived through a mix of private and public investment that has increased housing, boosted the restaurant and retail scene, and realized major projects like a rehabbed Riverfront Park and an expanded convention center.

Now, as the city and a variety of stakeholders look forward toward the next decade, they have drafted a new Downtown Master Plan intended to guide further development with more people, more vitality, more public space, more art and more emphasis on alternative transportation.

To that end, the plan includes a litany of proposals.

The surface parking lots that currently cover almost a third of downtown would be virtually eliminated, with new parking structures consolidating the parking space and opening up the land for redevelopment.

Certain downtown streets – Sprague and First avenues, Washington and Stevens streets – would trade traffic lanes for protected bike lanes that are integrated into the public transit system, including new City Line stations.

A clutch of downtown alleys, including Railroad Alley, Steam Plant Alley and the alley between Main and Riverside, would become pedestrian-friendly hangouts with new lighting, landscaping and furniture.

New incentives would bring a flurry of new housing and mixed-use development that increases density and residential occupancy.

Pocket parks and other small public spaces would pop up, including in the Rookery Block at the southeast corner of Riverside and Howard, while existing communal areas like the Parkade Plaza would be rehabbed and enlivened.

A cultural trail “connecting and directing people to historical sites and destinations” would link Browne’s Addition to the University District via downtown.

While those proposals and the many others included in the recently released master plan may seem like a lot of ideas on a lot of paper (127 pages, to be exact, in the draft’s existing form), those who helped draft the plan say they are committed to seeing them through.

Andrew Rolwes, vice president of public policy and parking at the Downtown Spokane Partnership, pointed to the fact that much of the master plan is devoted to an Action Plan that identifies a “step-by-step checklist” of interventions designed to help implement the broader goals.

Nathan Gwinn, an assistant planner in the city’s planning and development department, noted the plan also describes an annual reporting process allowing officials to “check in on progress” by tracking how many new units of housing have been created or how many acres of surface parking have been converted, for example.

But much of the work of actually changing zoning, funding projects, creating tax credits and acquiring new land for public space would be the job of City Council members.

Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who chairs the council’s Urban Experience Committee, said she and her colleagues have started discussing a mechanism that would help pay for the Downtown Master Plan’s enactment: the creation of a tax increment financing district, or TIF.

TIFs capture increases in property tax revenue within predetermined areas, then reinvest them in those areas to make public infrastructure improvements that will drive private development.

Stratton recently helped extend the timeline of a TIF in West Central that first helped pay for some of Kendall Yards’ infrastructure and is now focused on building up a pot of money to fund affordable housing, sidewalk improvements and perhaps a makeover of West Broadway Avenue in the neighborhood’s older part. She believes a downtown TIF “is a great way to cover those costs” associated with the master plan.

Councilmember Lori Kinnear agrees a TIF might be a solution for funding infrastructure in all or part of downtown, yet urges caution about creating too many districts.

The decision about a downtown TIF, Kinnear said, “can’t be decided in a vacuum. We have to look at the TIF process for the whole city and be very thoughtful about where a TIF should go, what it should do and how it would impact our general fund.”

Kinnear would like the city to “decide how many” TIFs it wants to create and “where they will do the best work” before it moves forward with creating more of them.

Even if she and her colleagues on council determine a TIF isn’t a good fit, Kinnear thinks it’s “absolutely” feasible for the master plan to become a reality.

In part, that’s because of the way in which the plan’s elements are formulated, with a mix of specificity and generality that she believes makes them easier to implement.

Kinnear pointed, for example, to the proposed bike-lane additions.

While the plan offers different ideas for how those lines would be protected and arranged, as well as examples of how other cities have created them, Kinnear noted that “it doesn’t tell you to put this kind of bike lane in.”

“We’re leaving it open-ended, so that depending on the situation, whatever is best for the area is what you choose,” she said. “You don’t want to get so prescriptive that you leave out imagination, ingenuity and things that are brand new that nobody’s ever tried before.”

Rolwes echoed that idea, noting that changes to travel lanes “would be done with experimentation,” such as trying out temporary configurations or road stripings to see what works. That would mean lower-cost approaches that allow community feedback.

“What works best would ultimately be implemented,” Rolwes said.

When asked whether that experimental approach might have a downside, by deferring implementation of the plan’s many elements, Kinnear pushed back.

She noted that the city has experts on hand – such as, in the case of bike lanes, a Bicycle Advisory Board and an on-staff bike-pedestrian coordinator – “who can pretty quickly step up and get us to a place where we can” come up with solutions.

“I’m more concerned about being so specific that we put ourselves in a box,” she said.

Kinnear said she applied the same principle when helping draft the master plan’s approach to homelessness and crime. Early versions, she said, took a more direct and specific approach to the issue, with language that stated “we don’t want any more social services downtown.”

While the latest draft plan doesn’t completely ignore the issue, it largely steers clear of directly addressing what to do about it.

That avoidance comes despite a survey conducted as part of the plan’s drafting that identified downtown’s “greatest challenges” as homelessness (66.3%) followed by public safety (57.1%).

So while the draft plan acknowledges that homelessness and public safety “are pressing concerns from the public,” it doesn’t take a strong position on the question of how to deal with them.

“There are divergent opinions about how to effectively address homelessness through centralized or decentralized services,” the plan reads.

Kinnear said she was in favor of that approach, and that she “edited it and really boiled it down and made it deliberately more vague, because I thought that would make it more useful.”

Despite her efforts to steer clear of those questions, Kinnear said “the human services piece” will be a likely “sticking point” as the plan moves toward adoption.

Kinnear, Gwinn and Rolwes agreed, though, that the plan’s many other elements, such as proposals to add lighting in viaduct tunnels and public space in alleys, “would over time lead to a downtown that is welcoming to everyone,” as Rolwes put it.

Another key to dealing with crime and homelessness, Gwinn argued, is ensuring housing affordability and economic opportunity.

The plan addresses those issues with a number initiatives designed to “encourage residential and mixed-use development with a variety in housing types and sizes that are affordable to a range of income levels.”

Kinnear expressed optimism that a factor that harmed downtown over the past year could be harnessed to help make that happen: the pandemic.

“I think as we get out of COVID,” she said, “I think people are going to be so eager to jump-start our economy … that it will take on a life of its own.”

While she anticipated commercial and office space might be left vacated by the rash of recent business closures and a growth in remote work, Kinnear said that could “create an opportunity for more housing downtown” as developers look to convert space to meet the area’s overwhelming demand for housing.

Dave Black, CEO of the real estate firm NAI Black, said he thinks Kinnear is right.

“Absolutely it makes sense to repurpose office buildings to apartments, because the rents (for apartments) are really strong right now,” he said.

Black’s firm is in the process of such a conversion now, creating the Marjorie Apartments in a longtime office building at the corner of South Howard Street and First Avenue. While that project began before the pandemic, Black said he expects the market for residential real estate to grow downtown as people emerge from more than a year of social distancing and seek “the action” of restaurants, bars, parks and events.

Creating that sense of action is central to the plan, said Gwinn, the city planner.

“The overall strategy is to energize streets,” he said.

Before the draft is adopted, it will wend its way through various Plan Commission, Design Review Board and City Council committees. It will also be the subject of a public meeting, likely in mid-March, Rolwes said.